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A new goal for Eto’o in saving Cameroon football

YAOUNDE, CAMEROON (AP) – When Samuel Eto’o won the election to become president of the Cameroon football federation, he celebrated like he might have after scoring a goal at the height of a playing career that put him among the best strikers in the world.

But that celebration in December marked just the start for Eto’o, who has set himself the daunting task of rebuilding a broken domestic football structure in his Central African home country.

Cameroon’s national team is one of Africa’s most successful with five continental titles; Eto’o was on the team for two of them. Cameroon seized the world’s attention with a run to the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup. Many took notice of African football after that and Cameroon has gone on to play at seven World Cups, more than any other African nation.

Yet at home, the last decade has been deeply difficult. The national league has been bedevilled by allegations of corruption and unkept promises from football leaders. The league has been regularly disrupted, sponsors have deserted it – taking their money with them – and players have lost faith.

”I can’t list the number of players who have left football to do other jobs because they benefit nothing (from playing),” said a defender with Coton Sport, Cameroon’s national champion, Che Malone.

Samuel Eto’o. PHOTO: AP

Malone said many players in Cameroon ”play for free or almost free” as some teams aren’t always able to pay their salaries.

Enter Eto’o. It was a surprise when the former Barcelona and Inter Milan striker announced he was standing as a candidate to lead the troubled Cameroon federation. It was a shock when he won.

Eto’o promised to fight corruption, promote women’s soccer, improve stadiums and other infrastructure, get fans back at games and improve the lives of players.

He also stated he had a mission ”to rekindle the winning spirit within our national teams” and there were early signs of that when Cameroon impressed on the way to third place at the African Cup of Nations it hosted.

Turning around the domestic game won’t be nearly so easy, or immediate. But the 41-year-old Eto’o has made a start, establishing a minimum wage for players in the top two tiers and enforcing rules requiring club owners to show proof they have enough money to pay their players and staff.

He also negotiated a deal to see the return of league sponsor MTN, a multinational telecom company, and has promised to build 10 stadiums in answer to players’ pleas for better settings. Some lower-tier games go ahead on fields that have more bare earth than grass.